The young believer needs a reminder of the hope of the Gospel, while cracking the door to the deep contentment that the Lord calls us into.
The past few months have been characterized by struggling with my own perception of myself. Not in a way that I would characterize as depressive, more like exhausted. Exhausted with having to “keep up” with myself. Especially over the course of the past year, my thought life has become more and more consumed with the desire to walk as a “healthy” believer. By “healthy,” I am referring to health on a heart, mind, and soul level. At the surface, this is a pure and worthy ambition. However, after some drilling down on the root of this pursuit, I have found residue of a pride that runs through many facets of my life. Perhaps, you can relate.
Here is what I have discovered. Though I have known this for some time, I have been coming more to grips with the so-called “hole” in my heart. We have a yearning for something or someone, more than this world , and we are desperately trying to satisfy that yearning with a pursuit of our own desires. Though there are many ways I have sought to fill this hole, I have recently been lured into a subtle pursuit of what I will call “Christian self-actualization.” I want to be just enough in this world to have an impact, while also being uniquely set apart as a believer. I want to be the right amount of easy-going complimented with the spiritual sternness of John Piper. I want to be perfectly humble, yet balanced by the right amount of confidence that is not overbearing. I want to be seen and known by people but also obscure like Christ. I could go on. Point being that a life like this is messy and complicated. I have sought to sprinkle the right assortment of Christlike attributes and perfectly balance the various levels of these traits in order to achieve this “ideal” Christian self. Surrounded by a world that pushes marketing and branding at us like never before, we have adopted our own pursuit of personal branding in the context of the Christian life. In the western church, many of us have inadvertently made this “ideal” Christlike version of ourselves the object and end-goal of our faith instead of Christ himself. We have spent so much time watching sermons, rehearsing doctrine, reading through Romans, being held accountable, and praying for wisdom (which are all edifying things), but somewhere along the way we bought the hidden lie that we could actually channel all this biblical information into becoming this ideal person. “I am not healthy enough right now” or “I am just not where I need to be” or “I should be doing better” are thoughts that sound rooted in humility, but are actually strikingly un-Christlike in the sense that they make you the object of your faith, not Christ. I have found that this kind of thought life leads us to two outcomes:
1. We are left unsatisfied and insecure in the world around us. The reality is that this ideal person who I am chasing seems to become more and more “perfect” every time that I fall short.
2. We are left exhausted. We have become burnt-out in our faith and turned following Christ into an unending game of self-actualization.
I want to draw out the flaws in this game, provide an alternative, and then add some clarity to the larger conversation.
1. Perfection, as humans, is a mere illusion. We are more and more inundated in a world where perfection has become the standard. Even in Christian community, Christian guys and girls have to act, talk, and look one way in order to be approved of by their peers. “Perfection” in the church has taken on a new and unique meaning, where perfection is just the right amount of imperfection to concede that you are still human. We are consistently taught by ourselves and the world around us that our worth is tied up in an image that is becoming increasingly unattainable. The truth is I am not perfect and neither are you due to the Fall and our sinful nature. Imperfection is a part of life on this side of eternity that we are called to walk in with humility. Chasing this Christian version of perfection is like chasing the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14).
2. Sanctification is a process. While we are positionally made holy and new in the sight of the Lord through Christ’s sacrifice, our struggle with sin is a battle that wages on in this temporary life.
I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ returns. – Philippians 1:6
Notice how the verse says, GOD “began the good work” and GOD “will continue his work until it is finally finished.” How prideful of us to act or think as if we can in any way expedite the process of our sanctification.
How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? – Galatians 3:3
God’s requirement of us is humility, not our own efforts at personal achievement. “Christian self-actualization” flows from a place of our own pride, but sanctification is a work of Christ through and through that ultimately brings glory to the name of the Lord. I urge us to submit to the process that is sanctification.
3. Ultimately, “health” in my walk with the Lord is not the aim – it is the byproduct. Like I mentioned earlier, I have found myself thinking about my life in the context of how “healthy” I am as a believer. This quickly becomes problematic as soon as I fall short, and my view shifts towards seeing myself as an “unhealthy” believer. The truth is that I stand in a hope that is far stronger than the whims of my sin.
Now, for the alternative: the Gospel. The truth and beauty of the Gospel is that God has chased us down right where we are – today! He has sought us out and invited us into a new story – a story of deep contentment and rest in Him. Read this slowly with me.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:28-30
In the words of John Mark Comer in his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, this is Jesus’ invitation “to step out of the burnout society to a life of soul rest.” However, the truth is, even as a believer, I am tired. I am somewhat burned out on religion. I am exhausted having to keep up in a world that doesn’t feel like home. And I know I am not alone in this. What are we missing? We are missing what theologian Dallas Willard calls “the secret of the easy yoke.” A yoke is an agricultural work instrument used to “yoke” two oxen together to plow a field. So, is Jesus inviting us here to rest or to work? The answer is yes. When I think of rest, I think of my bed, or a vacation to the mountains, or a day off from summer camp. However, Jesus is calling us to something far more than an escape from the exhaustion of life; He is calling us to “a life of soul rest.” This life involves us yoking ourselves, shoulder to shoulder, with the one who sacrificed everything for unity with us. In his death, burial, and resurrection, He promises to shoulder with us the weight of life on this side of eternity. All He asks of us in return is the humility to walk with Him. With Jesus bearing the burden of this life, we are free to be content in the present moment. The world offers thousands of different escapes from the exhaustion of the present moment, and Jesus doesn’t just offer us another escape that is better than the alternatives. Instead, He offers something that is just the opposite; He offers us His yoke. I want to tie this idea together with Comers words, “An easy life isn’t an option, an easy yoke is.”
Christ’s Call to Contentment
Finally, let me add a little bit of clarity. Christ calls us to contentment. Christ does not call us to apathy. Christ calls us to “come to him.” Christ does not call us to remain in our sin. Christ calls us to repentance (Matt. 4:17). Repentance does not contradict contentment. It is in seeing our sin for what it is – a gross separation from God – that sharpens and amplifies our desire for the Lord. Repentance is us turning away from our sin into a far greater joy, satisfaction, and ultimately contentment. Because of the Gospel, we are content in God’s presence with us right now (James 4:8), content that Christ came to heal the sick (Matt. 9:13), and content to wait upon the Lord to until he returns (Psalm 39:4-7).